NATO is being pulled in several strategic directions. Photo: Artur Widak / NurPhoto via AFP

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has faced numerous challenges in its 72-year history – and has been written off more than once by pundits and politicians.

Created as the key Western alliance to fight the Cold War against the Soviet Union, when the Soviets collapsed, many thought NATO would depart with them.

Yet, the organization found new purpose in managing the transition of Eastern European and Balkan states that followed, intervening on the ground in former Yugoslavia.

Post 9/11, too, NATO found fresh impetus in “out of theatre operations” – a strategy that led to its ultimately disastrous intervention in Afghanistan.

Now, the 30-member alliance faces a new challenge – finding fresh purpose in a security environment that, according to a November 30 speech by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, has “changed beyond recognition” just since 2010.

That was when the organization last defined its “strategic concept” – its overall worldview.  A new version of this is currently being hotly debated in the capitals of Europe and North America.

In his November 30 speech, Stoltenberg gave a glimpse of what this new concept might look like when it is finally released at the NATO summit in Madrid, Spain, next year.

NATO, he said, continued to face threats such as cybersecurity and terrorism.

It also continued to face its oldest threat: Russia – now massing troops on the border with NATO-membership applicant Ukraine.

But there was also a “new threat”, too, he said.

This was one not even mentioned in the 2010 Strategic Concept and was located far from the chilly waters of the North Atlantic. That threat was the Chinese Communist Party, Stoltenberg said.

China, he continued, was “expanding its global footprint from Africa to the Arctic, in space and in cyber-space”, while “using its economic and military might to coerce other countries and control its own people.”

Russian military personnel conduct adaptive training for a joint military drill on August 2, 2021. Photo: Wang Lianbin / Xinhua

While Beijing has roundly rejected such a characterization, China’s arrival on NATO’s radar does illustrate the breadth of NATO’s current security considerations.

In these, there is a growing view, too, that the world is in many ways a shrinking one.

“China is not a distant place anymore,” Daniel Hamilton, from the Foreign Policy Institute at the US John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, told Asia Times.

“It has become a player in Europe. It has held military exercises in the Mediterranean and the Baltic. What is China doing in the Baltic?”

All together now?

Yet, while the threats NATO considers itself to now face may be formidable, the alliance also faces a degree of internal fragmentation.

Turkey, which has the second-largest army in NATO after the US and has been a NATO member since 1952, began deploying Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles back in 2019.

That move got Turkey kicked out of NATO’s F-35 fighter jet program while also bringing on US sanctions.

Ankara’s long-standing dispute with fellow NATO member Greece over maritime and air limits in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean have also flared tensions.

France, a founding NATO member, then signed a defense pact with Greece back in September that promises aid against an “external threat” – widely understood to be NATO-member Turkey.

That month, too, NATO members the US and UK signed a defense agreement with Australia, known as AUKUS, that pushed France out of a submarine deal with Canberra, causing a major diplomatic rift between NATO allies France and the US.

“The AUKUS announcement was particularly bad timing,” Eva Ellereit from Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) policy foundation, told Asia Times. “Particularly since it came the same day the European Union launched its Indo-Pacific strategy.”

This strategy highlights the need for defense cooperation between Europe and the Indo-Pacific region, though also stresses collaboration and cooperation with China.

The USS John Warner, a nuclear-powered submarine of the type Australia will soon be developing. Source: US Navy

Debate within the EU over the union taking a greater security role has also intensified recently, particularly since one long-standing opponent of EU militarization, NATO member the UK, left the EU at the start of 2020.

Disgruntlement in Brussels with the US also grew after Washington’s abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, which was criticized for Washington’s scant consultation with its European allies.

EU defense ministers then held their first-ever discussion on a “strategic compass” for the organization in mid-November.

This calls for the establishment of “Rapid Hybrid Response Teams” – military units that could be sent to deal with crises such as elevated migrant flows in the Mediterranean, or such as that which recently occurred on the border with Belarus.

Bears and dragons

That recent crisis, however, has potentially refocused minds within NATO and the EU away from China and onto a traditional cause of concern: Russia

Indeed, while NATO members may fall out and pursue different interests, “The organization itself has proved pretty durable,” Steve Pifer, from the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, told Asia Times. “And Vladimir Putin gets the credit for that.”

Russia’s recent military build-up around Ukraine has alarmed many European governments, as has the Belarus border crisis, which many NATO member states have openly accused the Russian president of engineering.

“In 2010, when NATO launched the previous strategic concept,” says Pifer, “Russia was still seen as a partner. Since then, there has been a complete breakdown in NATO-Russian relations.”

That breakdown began with the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, which followed the overthrow of a pro-Russian Ukrainian ruler in Kiev and his replacement by a pro-European government that wanted Ukraine to join the EU and NATO.

“Russia said Ukraine joining NATO was a red line,” says Hamilton.

Since then, Kiev has been given a lesser partnership status in the organization. Now, though, “Russia has moved the red line, and Putin says that there can’t be any NATO presence in Ukraine at all – difficult when it’s a NATO partner country.”

While the chances of Russia taking military action are still widely considered small, “They would have been thought zero a decade ago,” says Pifer.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg gives a press conference during a NATO summit at NATO headquarters in Brussels, June 14, 2021. Photo: AFP / Olivier Hoslet / Pool

After 72 years, then, NATO may now be going back to its original concept.

“It makes a certain sense to go back to the roots,” says Ellereit, “and not to widen out to try and tackle all types of risks, but to coordinate better the existing strategy.”

A NATO presence in Asia, then, may not be the way ahead, with this left to the US and other individual NATO members states such as the UK and France.

At the same time, the next Strategic Concept will also likely take a hard look at those areas where China’s interests already overlap with NATO member states – from port infrastructure to tech companies, as well as in more straightforwardly military areas.

“It’s not about us going to China these days,” says Hamilton. “It’s about China coming to us.”